Vilnius: Lithuania and Latvia on Monday took NATO ally France to task over a warship deal with Russia, with Vilnius warning that Paris was setting a risky precedent. “I think this is a mistake,” Lithuania’s Defence Minister Rasa Jukneviciene told reporters. “This is a precedent, when a NATO and EU member sells offensive weaponry to a country whose democracy is not at a level that would make us feel calm.” Lithuania and fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia — who were ruled by Moscow until 1991 — have repeatedly criticised France’s plans since Paris began negotiating a warship sale with Russia in 2009.

Last Friday, France said it had struck a deal under which Moscow would buy two Mistral-class command and amphibious assault warships from a French-led consortium, with the possibility of two more. “Of course, for countries around Russia, this is not pleasant news. It’s definitely not the Christmas gift we would have liked to receive,” Jukneviciene said. Latvian Defence Minister Artis Pabriks said he was upset that France had ignored the concerns of its regional NATO allies, but underlined that he did not believe the sale would cause major security problems in the Baltic Sea. “Looking at the situation from a realistic viewpoint, one has to admit that French economic interests — in this case, selling the ships — would have no dramatic effects either on the balance of forces in the region or NATO strategy in the Baltic states,” he was quoted as saying by the Baltic News Service.

The deal, which involves joint construction of the Mistral-class ships, is the first sale to Russia of such naval high-tech by a NATO nation. A Mistral-class vessel can carry up to 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 13 battle tanks, around 100 other vehicles and a 450-strong force. It has facilities for a full command staff and is equipped with a 69-bed hospital. The Russian army has said such a ship would have helped it win its August 2008 war with ex-Soviet Georgia within hours rather than days. Russian military moves raise concerns in the Baltic states. The Kremlin only withdrew its troops from their territory in 1994, three years after they won independence when the communist bloc collapsed. The three states, with a combined population of 6.8 million, still have rocky relations with giant Russia, notably since joining NATO and the EU in 2004.

The Mistral: France’s amphibious assault ship

The Mistral-class warship, of which two versions will jointly be built by France and Russia, is an amphibious assault ship or helicopter carrier, used by the French Navy. Referred to as “projection and command ships” or “BPC”, a Mistral class ship is capable of transporting 16 helicopters, deploying up to six of them on the deck at any one time. It also can carry four landing barges, 13 battle tanks, around 100 other vehicles and a 450-strong force, and is able to unload troops into the theatre of operations. The ship has facilities for a full command staff and is equipped with a 69-bed hospital.

The Mistral came officially into active service on December 15, 2006. But already in mid-2006 it had demonstrated its operational capacity by evacuating to Cyprus some 4,700 civilians from Beirut who were trapped in the conflict between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It is capable of serving as part of a NATO Response Force or with United Nations or European Union peacekeepers. A powerful warship costing around 500 million euros (650 million dollars), the Mistral-class are the biggest French warships, after the aircraft carrier the Charles de Gaulle. The French Navy has two of them in service, the Mistral and the Tonnerre. Each is 199 metres (653-feet) long and 32 metres (105-feet) wide and displaces 21,600 tonnes fully loaded.